How to take better holiday photos on your smartphone

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At the beginning of the month I went to Bristol, to test the new iPhone XS in a photo walk organised by Three and led by photographer Rob Percy. As an Android user and after I have tested the camera from the new Samsung Galaxy S9 back in July, I was very curious to see what the camera of the iPhone can do. And I was honestly surprised. I fell in love with the Portrait mode, which I used constantly during the day but also with the colours the phone captures. Because of the HDR mode, all the photos came out vibrant and sharp.

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I wanted to test the phone a little bit more though, in different environments, so I borrowed it for another week. I took it to the World Travel Market, where I shot photos under artificial light, I tested it in low light during the night and I also experimented action shots on it. And I loved it, the camera is outstanding, and the phone can easily be a perfect travel companion for anyone who doesn’t want to carry any other equipment on holiday.

I was very impressed with the camera of the iPhone XS and this is why I thought about writing my recommendations on how to take better holiday photos on a smartphone. Whilst all the photos in this post were taken on the iPhone XS, which you can check out here, the suggestions in this guide can be applied to any smartphone you may have.

 

Know your device

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I think this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you regarding smartphone photography. Understanding the camera of your smartphone, its strengths but also its limitation will help you take better photos.

Besides my smartphone, I also have a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. I don’t expect the smartphone to shoot the same way the DSLR does. Taking holiday photos on a smartphone is however convenient (my DSLR, with the lens and all the gear weights about 10KG and needs an entire backpack to carry) so when I go on short trips, I sometimes leave all my other cameras at home. I have learned what my phone can do and how to work with it.

I find that one of the best strengths of the iPhone XS’s camera is the portrait mode. I like to experiment, so I have used it in many other ways: to take macro photos, to get better angles (this mode puts the subject closer to you, so you get better proportions when you take photos of buildings), even to take photos of food.

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Another strength is the Smart HDR. This is automatically enabled and helps retaining more details in the overexposed areas of the photos.

A limitation of the phone is obviously, the digital zoom. I never use zoom anyway on a smartphone, but the default wide angle camera can be difficult if you try to take landscape photos.

Knowing what the smartphone’s camera can and can’t do helps me understand what type of photos I should focus on.

 

Rule of the thirds

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I have been taking photos for at least 15 years and one of the first things I’ve learned was the rule of the thirds. Never put the subject of your photos in the centre because this will create a flat effect. You can easily turn on the grid, any smartphone has this option in the settings. Try to place your focal point in one of the four corners, where the grids meet. This will draw the viewer’s attention to the entire composition of the photo and not only the centre. It will also give more life and feeling to your photos, not to mention context.

When you are taking photos of a person or an animal, always compose the photo by leaving the empty space in the direction they are looking so that you create continuity. The same rule applies when you try to capture a moving person – leave the empty space in the direction they are going towards.

 

Play with angles

Personally, I love playing with angles, especially when I am taking photos of buildings or streets. I also like to incorporate “old versus new” in my shots, because the new architecture style, at least in London, has a lot of glass. And glass reflects.

Take a look at this photo I took of St Paul’s and how the cathedral reflects in the shiny windows of the nearby shopping centre.

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Reflections will always give you the opportunity to play with angles. As we remember from the high school physics lessons, the angle of incidence equals the angle of the reflection. Ok, I did not remember that, I got help from Wikipedia, but the point is that the reflection will always be at an angle, which will give the photo perspective. By playing with angles you are not only give depth to your photos but also balance and sometimes symmetry.

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Here’s a trick, you can always create your own reflections by spilling a bit of water on the ground.

 

Find the right light

Sunrise and sunset are always the best times to go out and take photos because of the warm light and the longer shadows it creates. This is why there are probably hundreds of people every day at big sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, Tikal in Guatemala or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, lining up with their cameras at the early hours of the morning, waiting for the sun to rise. When you visit an important landmark and you want to take good photos of it, it’s worth waking up early.

You would be surprised how empty the big capitals are at sunrise. Here’s a photo of Tower Bridge at 6:30AM, seen from the Millennium Pier.

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And this is a photo captured from the Millennium Bridge, at sunset.

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If you have to take photos during the day, when the light is quite harsh, try to find elements in your background that will “hide” the sun and create shadows, like a building, or a tree for example.

 

Capture the action

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Traveling is all about experiencing the local culture of a new place, and this may include dance performances, concerts and even rituals. Whilst it’s harder to capture action shots using the camera of a mobile device, it’s not impossible.

One trick you can use is the burst mode, which most smartphones have when you hold down the volume button. The camera of the new iPhone XS creates a short 2 seconds movie when you take a photo, and you can select the best shot manually.

Try to anticipate what the next movement might be and prepare your focus for when it happens. In a dance performance for example, look for patterns and repetitions. In a sports game, prepare for reactions when a point is scored.

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Set your shooting mode on manual and adjust the shutter speed and ISO. Most newer smartphones allow you to do this. If you shoot indoors, the light might not be the best, which will result in blurry photos, but if you adjust the shutter speed you will be able to “freeze” the action.

 

Portraits tell stories

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When I first started photography, I was taking portraits on a weekly basis. I had a few friends who would always pose for me and we used to go to different locations and do photoshoots on a point-and-shoot camera.

These days, smartphones are so advanced that they will have a setting that will allow you to take stunning defined portraits (the portrait mode on the iPhone and the Live focus on Samsung smartphones). It seems that because of the popularity of the selfie, all major smartphones manufacturers are integrating one way or another to enhance the portraits taken on the mobile camera. And I don’t blame them, there are A LOT of selfies out there. I wonder how many selfies are taken every second? Who knows!

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Anyway, back to portraits, there are a few untold rules that you should know when you are experimenting with someone else but your friends. Always make sure that the portrait is flattering the subject. With smartphone photography you do need to get very close to your subject, so it’s always a good idea to ask if you can take a photo and not just shove the phone in someone’s face for a shot.

Remember to keep the phone at the eye level of the subject when you take a portrait.

I do love portrait photography because I find people fascinating and also because a portrait can tell a story. There is a controversy around taking photos of strangers in public spaces and I tend to disagree with “the rules”. There would be no street photography without people in it. I do take photos of locals when I travel but always in a respectful way. People give photos soul and emotions.

 

Post-processing

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The photos you take with your phone are meant to be viewed on a mobile device. You probably won’t print or even download them into your computer. The photos we take with our smartphones are usually posted on social media, mostly on Facebook and Instagram. This is why post-processing on your smartphone using an app is totally fine! I usually use the Lightroom App to edit my photos, which is free if you have an Adobe subscription for your computer. I also sometimes use the free version of VSCO to fix perspectives. The photos in this post however have been edited with Snapseed. It was my first time playing with this app and I found it very useful, it has so many options, including HDR editing.

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The first thing I usually edit on my photos is the perspective, when I am forced to shoot angles from a position in which I can’t get them symmetrical or straight. I am also terrible with keeping a device straight, so I need to correct the horizon line most of the times when I take photos of a landscape. Then, I also do smaller edits such as adjusting the contrast, the brightness, the white balance and the sharpness. I do like my photos very sharp, full of details.

If you are shooting on the new iPhone XS in portrait mode, you also have the option to adjust the depth of field after you have taken the photo. I find this option to be brilliant, as it gives you full control over how much you want to put in evidence the subject of your photo.

 

Other tips for taking better holiday photos on your smartphone:

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  • Make sure your lens is always clean. Wipe it with a soft glasses cleaning cloth before you start taking photos.
  • Tap the screen to focus on your subject. The phone will automatically balance the exposure of your photo when you do this.
  • Do not use the zoom on the smartphone. As Rob Percy told me, when you are taking travel photos with your smartphone, your zoom is your legs. As smartphone cameras have optical zoom which reduced the quality of a photo, if you need a closer image just walk towards your subject.
  • Don’t use the flash. You might be tempted, especially by night, but the result won’t be a great one. Smartphones don’t have controllable flashes, same as DSLRs, which means that the burst of light they produce will make your photos look flat, with unwanted shadows.
  • Take advantage of the blue and golden hour, even if this means to wake up early. These are the best times of the day to take photos, when the light is warm and gentle. During the middle of the day usually the light is very harsh, and you can easily over and under expose your shots.
  • If you have time, walk around the area you want to take photos one day before and observe it, get to know it and then return with your camera.
  • If you are serious about photography then invest in a DSLR and the proper lenses for what kind of shots you want to take. For example, here is a guide on the best cameras for food photography.

 

What do you think? Do you have any other tips for smartphone photography?

 

Disclaimer: Please note that I have been invited by Three to take part in this photo walk and test the iPhone XS in Bristol. However, this article is in no way sponsored and all the views and opinions in it are my own.

Some of the links one this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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57 thoughts on “How to take better holiday photos on your smartphone

  1. Elizabeth O says:

    What a nice tips to share and also its depend on your taste with the right and perfect angle or site, view and how you manage your phone for the better and great shot.

  2. Ellie Plummer says:

    I can’t wait to upgrade my phone so that it has a better camera. I study photography so I think it will be useful to have a phone with a good camera so I don’t have to worry when I don’t have my camera on me.

  3. Terri Beavers says:

    Oh my gosh, my photos never look this good on my smartphone. I’m going to have to go thru your list and try to turn that around. It would make more sense than lugging my heavy camera around.

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